Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Virgo, John James (1865–1956)

by Jim Daly

This article was published:

John James Virgo (1865-1956), administrator and evangelist, was born on 22 April 1865 at Glenelg, Adelaide, eldest of eight children of Caleb Virgo, carpenter, and his wife Mary, née Swan. Leaving Glenelg Grammar School, Jack worked as a clerk and joined the South Australian Literary Societies' Union. On 7 November 1886 in Adelaide he married Lucy Stapleton Crabb (d.1915); they were to have a daughter and three sons. He became acting secretary of the Adelaide Young Men's Christian Association; following the secretary's conviction for embezzling association funds, Virgo was confirmed in the position in 1887. Membership and activities increased. He established the Our Boys' Institute as a separate branch and developed educational and sporting programmes with Christian emphases. He also began the famous Sunday-night Theatre Royal evangelical services which attracted between one and two thousand people. Virgo conducted the choir and led the singing in a fine baritone voice; a practised elocutionist, he delivered a spiritual message as the evening's climax.

His muscular Christianity suited the Y.M.C.A. Lacking the 'sissified complexes of the goody-goody', he had a gregarious nature and a gentle tolerance; he seemed incapable of indignation. In 1894 he attended the jubilee international Y.M.C.A. conference in London and in 1900 became secretary of the Australasian Union of Y.M.C.A.s. In 1903 he was appointed secretary of the Y.M.C.A., Sydney. Its new premises were extensive, with a large gymnasium ('build the man' was one of his mottoes), concert hall, accommodation, library and clubrooms. Virgo soon raised £15,000 to repay the association's debt. He promoted a fourfold programme involving physical, social, educational and spiritual activities, instituted Sunday-night evangelical meetings and took part in Christian crusades.

Virgo became general secretary of the London Central Y.M.C.A. in 1911. As national field secretary during World War I, he raised massive funds for the war effort and addressed a total of some two million soldiers on the Western Front. Two of his sons had enlisted. In 1918 he was appointed C.B.E. and next year became the English representative on the World's Alliance of Y.M.C.A.s. He retired in 1925.

On 12 October 1920 in the parish church of St Michael, Handsworth, Virgo had married Emmeline Dorothy Aston, a clergyman's daughter. They lived in the country where she bred champion bulldogs and he wrote his memoirs, 50 Years of Fishing for Men (1930). He was a corporator of the International Young Men's Christian Association College at Springfield, Massachusetts, United States of America. Wearing a homburg, Jack travelled widely, often revisiting Australia; at 70, on his tenth world tour, he delivered 101 speeches in 80 days. In Melbourne he had declared: 'There is not enough of real Christianity … there is too much of the mushy type. Too much flowery beds of ease and singing oneself away to everlasting bliss, and too little laying hold on life'. Survived by his wife, Virgo died on 2 August 1956 at Parkstone, Dorset. His estate was sworn for probate at £9016.

Select Bibliography

  • Young Men's Christian Association, Y.M.C.A. Who's Who and Annual (United Kingdom), 1934
  • J. T. Massey, The Y.M.C.A. in Australia (Melb, 1950)
  • Observer (Adelaide), 26 Mar 1921
  • Times (London), 18 Apr 1925, 4 Aug 1956
  • Herald (Melbourne), 17 Aug 1929
  • Table Talk, 29 Aug 1929
  • J. W. Daly, The Adelaide Y.M.C.A. (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Adelaide, 1972).

Citation details

Jim Daly, 'Virgo, John James (1865–1956)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 13 August 2022.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2022

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Virgo, Jack James

22 April, 1865
Glenelg, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia


2 August, 1956 (aged 91)
Parkstone, Dorset, England